Every child should see Hugo.
Now, because that’s the sort of pretentious sentence that is guaranteed to show up in the adverts, I should clarify. Not every child will LIKE Hugo – especially those children who demanded that a Shrek 4 be made. What Hugo will do is give some children a life long obsession with cinema. Scorsese has crafted such a wonderful love letter to cinematic history that it is easy to see why it is being embraced by so many. Kids (in fact, anyone) who sees this may find themselves becoming interested in Harold Lloyd and the early French fantasy films. Only Scorsese could have accomplished what Hugo manages to do. It uses modern film technology to expose the glory of cinema’s past to a new audience.
The film takes place in 1920s Paris. A young boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), the son of a clock maker, lives in the train station. He evades the Closeau-esque Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) by fixing the clocks and staying in the basement. Hugo is also obsessed with fixing an automaton that his father discovered in a museum. One day, while trying to get parts, shop owner Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) captures him and takes his notebook. Hugo asks Isabella (Chloe Grace Moretz), Georges’ ward, for her help in getting it back. They find that the automaton is something from Georges’ past and try to solve the mystery of why he wants it buried.
OK, Let’s get this out of the way. Papa Georges is really French silent filmmaker Georges Melies (I know there are accents in his name but I cannot type them). This is not really a spoiler, as the film reveals his identify within the first half hour. Besides, the film follows history fairly closely; after WWI, Melies’ studio went bankrupt and he did open a toy store in a Parisian train station. He was disgraced and forgotten, even though he practically invented cinema as we know it today.
But one should not go to Hugo to get a history lesson. One should go to Hugo to learn about the feelings behind Melies and the knowledge that he was practically forgotten so shortly after his debut. One should also go to learn why films have been considered special to begin with (and why people like me exist). The film views silent films, and all films, as a special sort of escapism from the world that was considerably darker at the time that Charlie Chaplin make his films. Scorsese, who runs The Film Foundation, knows the power that the medium has over impressionable young minds. This film is the most honest and open about what cinema can do to us and why it is important for society.
Now is as good a time as any to mention that the film is in 3D. Despite my ambivalence about that format, I would encourage people to view Hugo in this way. Simply put, 3D is the newest wave of technology at the moment. Hugo is about how new technology and how that can inspire awe in society. Thumbing its nose at recent developments would have demonstrated that the filmmakers were hypocrites. Besides, there are some great moments that the 3D helps to provide. The scene with the floating drawings was particularly well done, and required the use of 3D to emphasize the primitive animation that the scene demonstrates. James Cameron, in a rare moment of humility, said this was the best 3D he has ever seen. I agree with him – it is one of the few times that 3D was necessary for the story.
Of course, Hugo is not just noteworthy for having its heart in the right place. Everything about the film demonstrates why Scorsese has always been a master craftsman. The performances are all inspired (even Cohen’s comic relief character) and the film simply is the most evocative of the year with its winding gears and steam. Even the children (one of whom was previously in the absolutely terrible The Boy in Striped Pajamas) give better performances than many adult actors would be unable to muster. Hugo’s breakdown after he is initially unable to fix the automaton deserves comparison to…well, to a similar scene that has Oscar winning actor Ben Kinglsey doing the same thing. True prodigies like Scrosese are able to make film making seem easy. Other directors would have made the making of Hugo seem like a Herculean task, which would have hurt the material immensely.
But the appeal of the film is at how it embraces the past and introduces film history in a way no school could. Martin Scorsese has done more than any American filmmaker to preserve older films and ensure that they are available to future generations. The problem is, as time goes by, younger generations become less and less interested in the films of the past.What Scorsese does with Hugo is show why that era is special and must be critically considered, even today. This review has been nothing more than an encouragement for people to watch early films, but then, Hugo is 120 minutes of the same. If it can inspire just one person to go back and watch the films of George Melies, then it will be the greatest work Scorsese has ever crafted.